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State of limbo

South Boston News
Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, with local Historical Society president Barbara Bass outside the courthouse. / August 28, 2017
Six years in the making, the Courthouse Renovation Project is tied up in conflict between Halifax County and the Town of Halifax over a number of issues — with no outward signs that the two sides are moving any closer to agreement on the Courthouse’s future.

The latest action this week — an inconclusive but contentious meeting by the Halifax Town Planning Commission — casts doubt on the county’s goal of starting work on the Courthouse renovations by January.

On Wednesday night, town representatives and other interested parties outlined their objections to the county’s plans to expand and update the badly-maintained courthouse facility, built in the early 1800s and renovated several times over the span of two centuries.

County officials have come up with an estimated price tag of $17 million to complete the renovation project, which includes refurbished courtroom spaces, the addition of a second Circuit Court chamber, and separate access corridors throughout the building for courthouse staff, trial participants and members of the general public.

Standing in the way of the county’s plans is a decision by Town of Halifax on whether to issue a zoning permit — a requirement before construction work can begin.

On Wednesday, the Halifax Town Planning Commission once again declined the county’s request for a permit, saying more time is needed to study the proposed changes to the Courthouse, the centerpiece of historic Halifax.

Ron Reiter, town planning commission chairman, said after Wednesday’s meeting that it will likely take several more sessions of his commission before a decision on the county’s request for a permit is finalized.

While county officials at Wednesday’s meeting did not hide their frustration with the delays, County Administrator Jim Halasz said afterwards that he and others will continue to work with the Town to provide requested information.

Halasz said he is making “a check list” to see what else the County needs to do to provide the Town with the materials it needs to approve a permit.

Judging from the debate at the Town Planning Commission meeting this week, the checklist of county to-do’s could be a long one:

» Halifax Town Manager and Zoning Administrator Carl Espy has honed in on possible shortcomings in the county’s plans for traffic and parking at the expanded Courthouse complex. Noting that he expects to receive a report from VDOT on traffic options for Edmunds Boulevard, which wraps around the rear of the courthouse building, Espy has called on the county to “develop a more cohesive plan” for dealing with traffic safety and congestion arising with an expanded facility.

Traffic on Edmunds Boulevard would continue to run both ways under the county’s plan, leading VDOT to conclude that a full-blown traffic impact study is unnecessary. However, VDOT officials have indicated they will review the results of a study by “an appropriate consultant” hired by the Town.

Espy also contends that the County has underestimated the number of parking spaces that are needed to replace those that will be swallowed up in construction, or should be added with the courthouse complex expansion. Espy has said at least 30 new spaces are required, not 21 as suggested by the county’s consultant.

Furthermore, he notes, the loss of ten parking spaces behind the courthouse on Edmunds Boulevard includes a handicap-accessible space, adding to concerns that the county’s plan for the courthouse fails to make adequate allowances for mobility-impaired citizens.

Espy has also raised concerns about street lighting, the addition of ADA-complaint sidewalks and walkways, and placement of utility poles and traffic control and pedestrian features on streets surrounding the courthouse complex.

» A visiting speaker at Wednesday’s planning meeting, Virginia Department of Historic Resources Director Julie Langan, reiterated her concerns about the size and scale of the proposed courthouse renovations, which she said would overwhelm the historic original.

The building that is set to go up to replace the existing Annex — where General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts are housed — should be subordinate to the Dabney Cosby-designed courthouse, Langan said. It should not call attention to itself.

Langan also rapped the architect’s plans to build a glass corridor that will wrap around the side of the historic courthouse, providing access for members of the public who need to access the building. The corridor is one of three pathways to the buildings; other accessways are set aside for staff and criminal defendants who may be appearing in court.

If the glass corridor must be built — as county officials insist it must be, to satisfy security requirements of judges — then it should be as unobtrusive as possible, Langan said, through the use of clear glass rather than tinted glass.

While the Department of Historic Resources has no formal role in reviewing or approving the courthouse project, Langan urged county officials to protect the building’s historical significance. The building is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places; Langan also made a presentation on how other communities have balanced public use, historic preservation and open input in developing plans for their courthouse renovations.

» P.K. Pettus, a Charlotte County resident and member of Preservation Virginia, echoed many of Langan’s concerns and faulted Halifax County supervisors for not incorporating public input when planning for the renovation of the courthouse.

Noting that her home county faced similar problems with the dilapidated Charlotte County Courthouse. Pettus described how public input eventually changed to the county’s approach for a new courthouse, yielding a better result. She suggested that public input should still be considered in Halifax County, suggesting it is not too late for the Board of Supervisors to alter its plans.

Mike Sexton, a member of Halifax’s planning commission, also questioned the extent to which the public has had a say on the courthouse’s future. “After all,” Sexton pointed out, “the courthouse belongs to the taxpayers of Halifax County.”

» Two members of Town Council who have already expressed their opposition to the county going forward with construction suggested that some functions of the courthouse could be moved to nearby buildings in Halifax. Bill Confroy and Jack Dunavant noted that some properties in close proximity to the courthouse have been on the market for several years.

Em Edmunds, who is currently working out of the courthouse square law office of her late father, James Edmunds, asked what the county plans to do with the five law offices that border the courthouse lawn. The buildings are privately owned, but the land underneath is rented by the county.

» Lastly, town officials and citizens have pressed the county for more information on what will happen with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which is generally conceded to be in worse shape than the main courthouse building that stands next to it on the square.

Halasz said that matter would be addressed at a later date since it was not a part of the Courthouse Renovation Project, and consequently not a part of the county’s request for a zoning permit.

Attending the Wednesday meeting were all members of Halifax Town Council (except one), Halasz, County attorney Jeremy Carroll, CJMW architect Emmett Lifsey, County building inspector Otis Vaughan and Board Supervisors Chairman Dennis Witt (with no other county supervisors present). Also in the audience were Halifax County Historical Society president Barbara Bass, Jimmy Epps of B& B Consulting, which is advising the county, and retired Circuit Court Judge Charles L. McCormick III.

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While some form of remodel is needed. 17 million is way to much. I say go in and some security measures to take care of judge or go back to court. You can appeal this. We are a republic, one man ruling does not have to stand. Also I thought that the GA passed a law saying that judges could not do things like this. Thanks town of Halifax for trying to keep the county honest this is a big problem

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